Theology of the Sacraments of Initiation
Initiation into the Roman Catholic Church is completed with the reception of the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist through which men and women are freed from the power of darkness and joined to Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Through the power of the Spirit they become adopted sons and daughters of God and members of the people of God, who are then able to fully join in the celebration of the Lord’s death and resurrection.
Baptism is the initial sacrament one receives and the means by which a person is “incorporated into Christ” freed from sin and death and becomes a new creation, and a child of God, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Our ability to become more like Christ is strengthened through reception of the sacraments of Confirmation and Eucharist. Through Confirmation, “those who have been born anew in baptism receive the inexpressible Gift, the Holy Spirit himself, by which ‘they are endowed with special strength.’ Moreover, having received the character of this sacrament, they are ‘bound more intimately to the Church’ and ‘they are more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith by word and by deed as true witnesses of Christ.’ Finally, confirmation is so closely linked with the holy Eucharist that the faithful, after being signed by holy baptism and confirmation, are incorporated fully into the body of Christ by participation in the Eucharist.” Thus it is through these three sacraments, the Sacraments of Initiation, that a person becomes a full member of the Catholic Church.
What is the RCIA – Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults?
Following the decree of Vatican Council II, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults was restored as the normative way by which adults would be initiated into the Catholic Church, and in 1988 the National Conference of Catholic Bishops mandated the use of this Rite for the United States. This Rite recognizes the existence of a connection between the Sacraments of Initiation, a connection that in the early Church was not only theological but was also expressed through the reception of these three sacraments during the Easter Vigil by those who wanted to become members of the Christian community.
For the first 300 years the Church existed in a pagan world and suffered much persecution, with many of its members being required to give up their lives for the faith they professed. Thus, those who desired to join the Church had to fully understand what it meant to be Christian. They also had to undergo a complete change in their lives, giving up all that tied them to the pagan culture. The process, or catechumenate, by which they underwent this change, often took one to three years so that, upon entrance into the Church, they were ready to take on the full responsibilities of being a follower of Christ.
Christian Initiation – A Process of Conversion
In restoring the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the Church recognizes the need for providing a process of conversion through which an individual can come to grow in his or her faith relationship with Jesus, accept the Gospel message and values, and know what the Church believes and teaches. As a process, the RCIA recognizes that conversion is a free gift from God, which must be nurtured, supported, and allowed to grow with the help of the Spirit until the individual is ready to take the final step of professing his or her faith and becoming a Catholic.
Since this process or journey towards initiation involves the whole person, it must take into account that we are intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual beings who must include all these aspects of self in our faith commitment.
Christian Initiation, therefore, provides for times in which the candidate learns the doctrinal content and tradition of the Catholic faith. But, beyond this, the person must also come to know and understand the practices of Catholicism – what we do when we gather to worship, how we live and act as Christians in the parish community, and how we do Christ’s work in the world. Since faith and conversion involve more than just knowledge and action, committing to the Catholic Faith also calls for an internal change of heart and ever deepening spiritual growth. The initiation process provides for this journey toward maturity of faith through constant prayer and through ritual that marks an individual’s readiness to take another significant step in the process toward full incorporation into the Body of Christ. This progress is celebrated through specific rites or ceremonies during Sunday Liturgy so that the candidates feel the welcome and support of the parish they will join. Likewise, they benefit as the community prays for their spiritual growth.
Christian Initiation and the Parish Community
When individuals seek to join the Roman Catholic Church they not only become members of the universal Church, but also enter into a specific local, faith community. It is important for candidates to come to know that community – to understand its vision, goals, and those activities of outreach and social action in which it is engaged. Thus, it is the role of the entire community to bear witness to the Gospel, so that the candidates can experience what it means to be a member of the Body of Christ and part of a community rooted in the message and love of the Lord.
As it takes on the task of forming new Catholics, the parish community supports the growing faith of the candidates when it participates in the rites which celebrate the major passages in the journey towards initiation. In doing so, the community is challenged to reflect upon how faithful it has been to the teachings of Christ, and also to experience ongoing conversion and the deepening of its own faith-life.
Besides becoming acquainted with the community as a whole, the candidates should come to know individual members of the parish, so that the community they are joining does not remain merely an anonymous group of people. When parishioners become part of the process of Christian Initiation they join in the journey of faith with the candidates. On this journey they share their faith with the seekers, pray with and for them, and help them to experience the joy and understand the hardships involved in being Catholic – a Catholic who seriously takes on the responsibilities of being a follower of Christ.
Candidates for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults
The RCIA is a process for adults who, “after hearing the mystery of Christ proclaimed, consciously and freely seek the living God and enter the new way of faith and conversion as the Holy Spirit opens their hearts.”4 Since it is through this process, and all of its accompanying rites, that they are prepared to receive the Sacraments of Initiation, the RCIA is for the following: 1) unbaptized adults, 2) adults baptized in other Christian Traditions, and 3) baptized, but uncatechized adult Catholics who wish to receive the remaining two Sacraments of Initiation (Confirmation and Eucharist). Those adults who are only seeking Confirmation should not be included in this process, but should be prepared for the sacrament and receive Confirmation when the Bishop confirms in the parish.
The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults can also be adapted for children of catechetical age who have not yet been baptized, and can be extended over a period of years if necessary. Those children who are catechized through this process should complete their initiation into the Church by receiving all three sacraments at one time.
Catechesis in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults
The RCIA is meant to prepare adults to live the Christian life, through a process that provides an adequate time of preparation and formation. It should be “gradual and complete in its coverage, accommodated to the liturgical year, and solidly supported by celebrations of the word. This catechesis leads the catechumens not only to an appropriate acquaintance with dogmas and precepts but also to a profound sense of the mystery of salvation in which they desire to participate.”
Central to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is an experience of conversion for the catechumen or candidate, a conversion into a deeper love relationship with Jesus. One comes to this knowledge of the Lord through reflection upon and discussion of Sacred Scripture, always with the understanding that knowing Jesus means responding to his challenge to live as his disciple. One comes to knowledge of what Catholics believe through a clear presentation of Catholic Doctrine, which includes the Four Pillars of the Catechism of the Catholic Church – Creed, Sacraments, Commandments, and Prayer. One comes to know how to live as a Catholic by participating in the life of the Christian community and by putting into practice what one has learned through scripture and doctrine. Therefore, catechesis in the RCIA should be lectionary based, including both scripture and doctrine, beginning with the Catechumenate Period of the RCIA. This occurs when the doctrinal topic for the week is determined by each Sunday’s Gospel reading, so that what one hears proclaimed in scripture, what one believes as a Catholic, and how one lives as a follower of Christ is all connected. 8
The RCIA Team
Although it is the role of the entire parish community to evangelize and catechize, it is important to form a RCIA Team whose members directly assist the catechumens and candidates in their process of conversion, by walking with them on their journey. While the most important role for every member of the Team is to be a witness to their faith, the RCIA Team is composed of parishioners who desire to serve in the ministry of initiation by taking on different roles and responsibilities. The RCIA Team consists of the following ministries:
The role of the coordinator is to oversee the RCIA process by gathering the Team together and coordinating people, schedules, meetings and ideas. “Some tasks include understanding the vision of initiation; developing ways to inform and involve the parish, parish groups, and the staff; recruiting and forming a team; and working with those who express an interest in becoming Catholic.”
The role of the catechist is twofold; it involves both answering the questions that catechumens and candidates have about being a Catholic, and instructing them concerning the teachings of Christ and the Church. The catechist should have a good grasp of Catholic Doctrine, and also be comfortable with using a process of facilitation that enables participants to reflect upon Sacred Scripture and the Catholic Faith.
The role of the sponsor is to be a guide for a person as he or she journeys through the RCIA process. The sponsor provides support and encouragement to the catechumen or candidate, is an example of what it means to live as a committed follower of Christ, and is the person who acts as a witness to the community concerning the readiness and willingness of the candidate. Of all the roles, the sponsor is the one who develops the most
important relationship with the candidate, as together they make the journey of faith toward initiation.
The ministry of hospitality is central to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, because it is important for the catechumens and candidates to feel that the community is looking forward to the time when they will become members. The role of those involved in hospitality is to be hosts and hostesses for the candidates, making them feel welcomed by preparing the environment and refreshments for the sessions, and also for the times when other members of the parish may gather to meet them.
Stages or Periods on the Journey of Faith: An Overview
For all of us, our journey of faith never ends, as throughout life we continue the process of conversion – a process of turning our hearts and minds and lives more towards God and deepening our love relationship with Jesus. For those who embark on the journey of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, this process begins and takes place through stages or periods which have focuses, but all which enable one to grow in the love of the Lord and knowledge of the Catholic Faith.
The RCIA process has four major periods, with special rites that mark passage into the next stage.
I. Period of Evangelization and Precatechumenate
This is a time of no fixed duration or structure that precedes formal admission into the catechumenate. It is a time of evangelization in which initial faith is awakened and called forth in the catechumens, and the fundamentals of Christian teaching are explored.
First Step: Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens
This is the liturgical rite that marks the beginning of the catechumenate, in which the candidates publicly express and the Church accepts their intention to respond to God’s call and follow the way of Christ.
II. Period of the Catechumenate
This is the time for nurturing the growth of the catechumens’ faith and conversion to God, assisted by celebration of the word and prayers of exorcism. The duration of this period depends upon the progress of the individual, and can vary from one to three years.
Second Step: Election or Enrollment of Names
This is the liturgical rite, usually celebrated on the First Sunday of Lent, by which the Church formally ratifies the catechumens’ readiness for the Sacraments of Initiation. Through this rite the catechumens become the “elect” and express their willingness to receive these sacraments.
III. Period of Purification and Enlightenment
This is the period immediately before the elects’ initiation at the Easter Vigil, and is usually the preceding Lenten Season. It is a time for reflection, intensely centered on conversion, marked by celebration of the Scrutinies and Presentation of the Creed and Lord’s Prayer, and finally by the Preparation Rites of Holy Saturday.
Third Step: Celebration of the Sacraments of Initiation
This is the liturgical rite, usually celebrated during the Easter Vigil, by which the elect are initiated into the Catholic Church through reception of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist
IV. Period of Postbaptismal Catechesis or Mystagogia
This is the time, usually the Easter Season, during which the newly initiated experience what it means to be a full member of the Christian community. This is accomplished through atechesis which focuses on the sacraments they received at Easter, to bring about a deeper understanding of the mysteries they have experienced, and particularly by participation with the faithful in the Sunday eucharistic celebration.